Years ago I went to the theater and saw a film that has never really left me. The film starred a grizzled and haunted Jack Nicholson, was directed by Sean Penn who seemed to be channeling his inner King Lear and elderly Akira Kurosawa, and was filmed by the criminally underrated cinematographer Chris Menges. That film, The Pledge, which is based on this book, was not a huge success and though it is well reviewed by critics, I’ve not met many people who liked it – especially the ending.
Half a decade later I saw another film in the theater that while also well reviewed was also not a success and contains a scene that when many people see it are first shocked and then dismiss as being something you’re not supposed to do in movie (or any fiction). That movie is Rescue Dawn by the great Werner Herzog and the scene I’m talking about is the beheading.
Between these two film, The Pledge and Rescue Dawn (and since all of Herzong’s films), I came to reassess my opinion on what art can and should do. In fact I would consider the film version of this book to be one of those moments that, while at the time I was unaware of its influence, completely changed my outlook and opinions on art and aesthetics.
I had been previously of the opinion that art, be it story telling in a novel or a film, has to play by certain ‘rules’ and that to break those rules means that you are no longer really creating art. But the problem with ‘the rules’ (tropes, to be honest) of storytelling is that it all gets really predictable and never takes into account ‘reality’ or ‘truth’. Chaos is never really a factor in storytelling because you can’t control chaos, you can’t fit it into a neat, tidy narrative that follows the ‘rules’ as laid out by the story.
But then what is the point of art? Is art supposed to be a container in which we can put some of the otherwise messy elements of life into, clean them up, file them down, and then make them fit together so that they all play nice with each other? Why can’t art have moments of pure chaos and chance? And I’m not talking about deus ex machina, I’m talking about what this story is trying to get at and what Herzog was telling us when he chopped of his character’s head.
The genius of this story is in its subversive take on the crime story (it is, after all, sub titled Requiem for the Detective Novel) and in its labyrinthine structure where we are being told a story to a run-of-the-mill crime writer by a man who watched the events unfold to yet another person. We are, in effect, three steps removed from the events of the story, a story that relies heavily on interpretation of evidence, some of which is the artistic fantasies of a drawing by a 9 year old girl in pig tails and a red dress.
In short, what Dürrenmatt is trying to say is that art cannot actually faithfully represent reality and that do attach truth to something that is made up can, perhaps, make you go insane. You’ll go insane looking for clues and patterns in everything you see until you totally lose your mind, lost in a labyrinth of confusion and chaos.
Better, in a way, to be like Henzi, the other detective, who grasps at what seems to fit the facts, the innocent Peddler, and just be done with it. Why over complicate everything? So what if it costs an innocent man his life?
Well, of course that isn’t right. And that’s what Dürrenmatt is trying to tell us through our once-removed narrator, but how do you show people the true nature of the world through art? Can it be done and still be a satisfying artistic experience for the audience/viewer/reader? Can the whole shambling beast of truth be paraded out on stage, taught to sit and dance and give its paw on command and all the while entertain the crowd? Or are we only ever going to gets dim shades of truth, little sheddings of that beast’s fur for us to collect and try to piece together the nature of the whole, unseen animal it came from?
Most people would not find that very entertaining.
In the end, however, we can either look for truth or we can look for art. The two are not the same, in my opinion. You can either wrap up a detective story where the murderer is apprehended, or it can end where the murderer is killed in a car crash on his way to commit a crime and leaves the entire investigation in the air with no resolution at all. Or, like Herzog, the man whose life you’re trying to save all of a sudden gets his head chopped off. Both are most senseless and inartistic acts, but they much more true than a satisfying, tidy tale.
Maybe in some way art hurts us in our comprehension of the universe, maybe because we are, as a species wired to look for patterns, to create narrative, that we do ourselves a disservice when we try to tame the cold, vast, chaotic, and unfeeling reality. Maybe that’s why we are prone to go insane when confronted with chaos and horrible, random chance, why we turn our backs on the face of these terrible events that at can and do happen. When bad things just suddenly happen to us we are not really prepared to deal with them because we’ve been conditioned to believe things will work out in the end, that everything should make sense, that there is a greater, higher power controlling everything and when we are forced to face a situation that seems to say there is nothing controlling the universe, we shrink away, we retreat, we lose ourselves – or we find a scapegoat, pin it all on an easy solution, even if it’s not true, and place the blame just somewhere, anywhere, so that we can get on with our day and our lives. Why shouldn’t some drifter, some outsider we don’t know or care about pay so that we can sleep? He’s a nobody, right? He’s not one of us!
It’s so much easier to not hear the bells ringing in the background, to not pay attention to the noise, the chaos of people coming and going, the crowds, the chaotic web of incomprehensible life going on all around us. Why worry about one bad person, why not just be like the vast majority of people who are decent and good? Why obsess over something we can’t understand when we could just go for a drive in the country?
This story, like pretty much all of Werner Herzog’s films, is a glimpse of what it really means to confront reality, to see chaos and how someone might deal with situations that make no sense whatsoever. However, not everyone will be satisfied with the story here because it doesn’t behave like a good story should, it’s untamed but it’s also more true than the truth because it gets at the psychology of human existence and how irrational the universe really is.
In a way this isn’t just a requiem for a detective story; it’s also a horror story. And it’s brilliant.